Friday, July 2, 2010

Here, Have a Balloon

I wanted to post some further commentary on this post that talked about the visual language differences between Western and Japanese comics.

Some people think that Western comics are more cinematic, but I think Manga is more movie-like, given how much of their work is like reading storyboards in comic form. The Shojo elements that are so pervasively common are elements that Movies used to have, such as Fade-ins, overlapping images, metaphorical imagery (flowers being the most common), which have all been lost with time as movies have moved away from subtle camera trickery into the realm of cool explosions.

In fact, regarding terms where the images in a comic can be used as visual metaphors, the closest I think come close are David Small’s Stitches, and David B.’s Epileptic. (Is it a coincidence that both authors’ autobiographical comics have the same name? Granted, the latter had his changed, but still…)

A popular staple is to have a character’s face blown-up in a larger format in front of the character. Also, it’s not unusual for Manga to totally ignore the 180 degree rule, and show both characters facing away from the camera, and seeing their facial expressions simultaneously. (An example would be seeing the character’s backs as they see a horrific event, and seeing their faces in a faded image above them) I’ll try to find a relevant page later if I can.

What I wanted to expand my commentary on was the usage of speech balloons.

Originally, I wanted to point out that iconic staple of Manga - the silent thinking balloon. Everybody’s seen these, right? Where a character will be standing around, thinking about nothing in particular. This was popularized with Golgo 13, who had whole dialogues of nothing but “...”, “.....”, and “........” if he was feeling particularly emotive.























When this trait was recently adopted by Western comics, I felt vindicated, that Manga was finally beginning to make inroads and become recognized. However, there were essays on how American comics (particularly S-hero comics) were essentially allergic to any thought balloons. I was going to post some Manga examples of how they tended to think more, but then noticed that a Manga character was just as likely to say "..." as they were to think it, so my arguement was already shot down before I could make a case for it.

Very often, when I was reading American comics, and there were text-boxes of narrative, I often glossed over them just to read the dialogue, to get to the real meat of the story. Oftentimes, I felt the boxes were slowing down my enjoyment of the comic, and weren’t giving me any information I needed to know. And oftentimes, I would be right.

What I wonder is why, if they need to use narrative, can’t they use the Manga equivalent of floating text instead? It was used to great effect in Death Note, and other comics with little to no confusion to who was doing the thinking. Alternatively, when narrative IS used in Manga, it gets put in text boxes as well, but it doesn’t feel as intrusive or distracting.























What I DO find distracting in Shojo Manga is where a character will be thinking in the midst of recalling someone’s conversation. (This confusion can be compounded if someone’s talking while they’re thinking.) Even though it’s easy enough to tell the two apart thanks to the difference in the bubbles, it can break the flow somewhat. In these cases, it might be easier to read one set of bubbles, then go back and read the other. Of course, you lose the state of mind these characters are going through, but my point’s been made.























One other thing that separates Manga from Western comics is their willingness to be experimentive with their word balloons. It’s not unusual for a word balloon to take up half a panel, only, rather than take the room above, they move it to the side so that the character’s cool hair isn’t obscured. Another popular option is to make the balloon partly transparent so that there’s a faint outline of a balloon within the character’s body. With Western comics, the preferred usage is having the balloon over the character’s head. (Newspaper comics might be to blame for this)

Also, compared to Manga, which uses lots of white space for their balloons, Western comics are practically claustrophobic. It’s as if they don’t want to waste any space on the art that they’ve worked so hard on, that they’re afraid of letting any intrusive text get in the way. So they cramp as much words as possible into a tiny balloon to be as unobtrusive as possible. I’m constantly reminded of the coloured Marvel version of Akira, which replaced ALL the large balloons with smaller cramped balloons to appeal to Western comic fans. How they were able to replicate Otomo’s detailed artwork is a mystery to me.
















People may have complained about the usage of the transparent balloons in the Twilight Manga, but it’s a slight adaption of a technique widely used in Shojo Mangas, where the characters are visible through the speech they use.























Of course, it’s more successful in Vampire Knight than Twilight, probably because the Japanese have had more experience with this kind of thing. It’s not unusual for Manga characters to occupy the space where their thoughts will go. The difference is that unlike Western comics, which can be insecure about covering up the pictures, Manga has found a reasonable halfway point that allows both the text and art to be seen simultaneously without one infringing the other. This sort of thing must come as a bit of relief for the artist who painstakingly works hard on the page, and not have to worry about which bits should be covered up. A normal artist would think of using the blank space in the upper hand corners for the dialogue, but the text wouldn’t have that same emotional punch if it weren’t within the characters themselves:





















Something else I noticed about Manga balloons - they can change depending on the dialect. Most balloons are vertical, which makes for easy vertical reading. But if a character is American, their balloons will be horizontal. Here’s a few select examples from Genshiken.


























As an aside, I’ve always had trouble reading any of Joe Sacco’s works, because his comics make me sick. It’s not the subject material (which I might find interesting), it’s the text boxes. They’re constantly swaying from one side to another, and the overall effect makes me seasick. (Or at least as seasick as I can get from reading a comic - I’ve never actually gone on an ocean voyage.)

















EDIT - Here's another example where the text boxes are at odd angles, yet for some reason, the speech balloons are perfectly still.

3 comments:

  1. Yeah, I see what you mean about that Joe Sacco panel. It doesn't bother me as much as it bothers you, since I've read stuff by him before without even noticing this tendency. But in that page particularly it is rather distracting the way the text boxes are tilted in the air as if they're actually hovering and fluttering slightly in the breeze at semi-cross purposes to the movement of the car. This effect seems to be further enhanced by the fact that the words aren't centered in the boxes, and in fact have noticeably ragged margins that somehow make you much more conscious of the text boxes as quasi-physical objects intruding on the picture.

    That shoujo thing with the reflective "voiceovers" competing with the dialogue in a simultaneous or remembered scene bothers me, too. You even picked a page from "Skip*Beat," the manga that immediately sprang to mind as an example of this. Personally, I think this technique works a lot better when the voiceover at least finishes a complete thought or sentence in each panel, instead of forcing you to try to mentally carry the thread of both the half-finished voiceover statement and the ongoing dialogue across two or more panels. This makes it pretty much impossible to follow either thought coherently to the end without, as you said, temporarily ignoring one in order to read the other all the way to its conclusion first, and then going back to read the other.

    It's somewhat more feasible to juggle the two narrative/conversational threads simultaneously if the non-voiceover action being pictured is just a recapitulation of a scene that's already been shown earlier in the manga. But sometimes even that doesn't help much, especially if the remembered scene originally occurred multiple pages or chapters earlier, or is obviously supposed to take on significantly deeper new meaning once it's juxtaposed with the conclusions drawn in the voiceover.

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  2. You're certainly one of the most verbose responders I've seen in awhile. So I was disappointed when your livejournal address led nowhere. I would've liked to see more of your writings.

    Regarding Joe Sacco, it's not just that the text boxes are tilted, I also have to contend with the speech balloons which are for some strange reason, perfectly horizontal. Just as I'm begining to feel some stability within a page, it lurches me another way, which fits my seasick metaphor perfectly.

    One major difference I've noticed between Manga and American comics is that when recalling a previous event, the former will use a panel of a relevant scene in the background or a stand-alone panel. (This happens a lot in Naruto) Whereas, American S-hero comics will have "see issue 396, page 12, panel six!"

    I may exagerate, but it was this continual refference to past issues that made the Soap Opera-ish S-hero comics gain popularity. Since they continually talked about past events, ravenous fans had to hunt down these elusive issues to find out what these people were talking about. If Romance comics had gone down this road, and not contented themselves with being stand-alone stories, the current comics landscape could be very different from today.

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  3. Zomg, that Twilight panel. Aghast, but more at the font used than the transparency, though the placement is problematic. (On a side note, translucent bubbles are surely a lot more annoying to edit/letter/redraw than white bubbles are.)

    Those examples of Joe Sacco's work make me feel a little woozy too! XD

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